Books, CDs, DVDs and video games are already some of the cheapest forms of entertainment around, but we’ve found three services that render them even more affordable – specifically, by making them yours at no cost whatsoever.
OK, there is a catch, but it’s a very small one: You’ll incur shipping fees, but this never amounts to more than a few dollars per item. And most of the services operate on a trading model, which means you’ll need to give up a book, CD, DVD or video game you own in order to get something don’t already have. Likewise, acquiring entertainment this way doesn’t deliver the instant gratification you’ll get from online shopping or visiting a brick-and-mortar store, especially because you can’t be sure that the item you’re looking for will be available, and it can take as long as 10 days to receive an item you’ve ordered. But let’s be honest: You seriously can’t beat the prices.
We signed up with three services— Bookins, PaperBackSwap, and Swaptree—to evaluate what each had to offer. Read on to see what we discovered.
Bookins’ offerings are limited to books and DVDs, and you never interact directly with the person you’re acquiring the item from. The service guarantees you’ll receive the items that you request and will contact the shipper if you encounter a problem. If they’re unable to resolve the problem, they’ll credit your account for the transaction.
The site uses “points” as currency. You earn points by shipping books and DVDs to other Bookins customers, or you can purchase points with a credit card. The site automatically assigns a point value to each item as it enters the system (allotting more points for newly-released items, bestsellers, and classics, and fewer points for inexpensive or less popular items). Books are identified by their ISBN or UPC code and DVDs are identified by UPC code. The cost of purchased points range from $0.60 each when purchased in lots of 50 to $1 each when purchased in lots of 10.
Bookins pays the postage when you ship an item to another customer, but you pay a flat rate of $4.49 for each item you receive. The site sends you an email when someone has requested an item on your trade list. If you don’t respond by visiting the site and agreeing to ship the item within 48 hours, you risk losing the opportunity to earn points for that item if Bookins will seek out another customer who is able to fulfill the request.
Since the service is based on points, there is no one-to-one relationship between items you’re willing to give up and those you’re looking to acquire: List a book or DVD that’s worth 10 points, for instance, and you can acquire one book or DVD worth 10 points or any combination of two books or DVDs that are worth five points each. Bookins uses the U.S. Postal Service and sends emails to both parties when items are shipped. Each party can also track the progress of shipments by entering tracking numbers in the USPS website.
Bookins boasts that it eliminates all interactions between traders, and while that greatly reduces the chances you’ll get in a hassle over any particular transaction, it also renders the experience a little sterile. There are no discussion forums, for instance, and the book reviews contributed by customers are limited to just a few sentences and many go without bylines. The site does have a large inventory of books, though, and it’s organized in a manner that makes it easy to browse and find something you’ll enjoy. Bookins’ DVD collection is much less impressive.
PaperBackSwap is strictly a book-swapping site, but the company operates two sister sites, SwapaCD and SwapaDVD, where you can trade CDs and DVDs, respectively. Credits accrued or purchased on one site can be transferred to the other two.
PaperBackSwap, like Bookins, operates on a points system: Each bound book is worth one point each and audio books are worth two. The books you list on this site, however, don’t accrue any points until another customer requests it and you indicate that you’ve shipped it. If you don’t want to wait to earn points, you can purchase them for $3.45 each (with a three-point minimum) using a credit card or a PayPal account.
As with the other two sites we checked out, you enter ISBN or UPC codes for each item you’re willing to trade. PaperBackSwap stipulates only that items be in “good condition,” defined for books as having “…front and back covers, all pages, no liquid damage, no writing or highlighting….” If another customer is interested in acquiring that item, they’ll place an order and PaperBackSwap will send you an email informing you of their interest.
PaperBackSwap is unique among the three services we reviewed in that it allows the requestor to set conditions under which books will be accepted. One customer who requested a book from our listing stipulated that he would not accept books that had spent “a lot of time in a smoking environment;” another indicated that “all hardcover books must include their original dust jackets.” These trade conditions appear as soon as the trade is initiated, and you’re given an opportunity to cancel the trade if you can’t abide by them. The trading partner has the right to return items that don’t meet their conditions.
SwapaCD and SwapaDVD both operate in a similar fashion: Swapped CDs earn one point and cost one point plus $0.49 and the postage to mail them (approximately $1 to $2, depending on the packaging you use). Swapped DVDs earn one point and cost one point (some are priced higher) plus the cost of postage to acquire. You can send books, CDs, and DVDs using any method you’d like, but the service has hooks into the U.S. Postal Service that give you the option of purchasing mailing labels with prepaid postage.
Join Swaptree and you can trade books, music, and movies you no longer want for similar items that you do want. You can also trade PC and console (Xbox, PlayStation, etc.) games, too, and it’s possible to trade a book for a movie, a movie for a video game, and so on. You input the UPC or ISBN codes for the products you own and the service matches you with members who might be interested in trading with you.
The service asks you to indicate the condition of the item you’re trading, ranging from “brand new” to “acceptable.” A book listed as brand new should be unread and in perfect condition, while one described as acceptable might have some damage to its cover and perhaps writing in the margins, but it shouldn’t be missing any pages.
We listed seven books (six paperbacks and one hard cover) and the service immediately produced a list of 2,787 items that we could trade those books for. You can make the service more efficient by creating a list of items you’re interested in acquiring. You can create this want list item by item, browsing through what other members have listed as being available for trade; you can import a file containing ISBN or UPC codes (stored in .txt or .csv format); you can link to a bestseller list maintained by an online retailer, such as Barnes & Noble; or you can link to your Amazon wish list. The service also offers a browser toolbar (Firefox only) that will notify you while you’re shopping on Amazon and several other online retailers that the book you’re considering buying is available for trade.
Books and movie listings are accompanied by capsule descriptions, excerpts of critical reviews from the likes of Entertainment Weekly, and comments from Swaptree. CDs have track listings with 30-second previews you can listen to. Trades are made on a one-for-one basis, with Swaptree acting as matchmaker, but the service can also accomplish three-way trades. So while you can’t trade three less-desirable items for one that’s more in demand, there might be situations where you send an item to user B, user B sends something to user C, and user C sends an item to you. When you’re ready to send an item you have the option of purchasing a postage-paid mailing label. This makes shipping as simple as wrapping or boxing the item, taping the label on, and dropping it in a mailbox (packages weighing more than 13 ounces must be taken to the Post Office). This method, executed through the U.S. postal service, provides a means of tracking the shipment, but you can ship by other means if you prefer.
Swaptree also has a social networking element, with groups, discussion forums, Facebook links, and user ratings. Although Swaptree offers to help resolve disputes between users over items that aren’t shipped or aren’t in the condition the sender claimed, negative feedback is the only real recourse available to a dissatisfied user. We like being able to swap a book we’re longer interested in keeping for a CD, DVD, or video game, but the service’s inventory is currently weighted much more to books than digital media.
Which Service Would We Use?
While there’s nothing stopping you from listing collections of books, CDs, DVDs and games that you’re willing to trade with all these swapping services, it’s best to pick just one. You won’t want to deal with the hassle of managing three separate inventories, and if you draw too much negative feedback because a trading partner wants an item you’ve already disposed of on another site, no one will want to deal with you.
So which one is best? We found trading on all three sites to be an easy process, and the ability to print labels with prepaid postage—a service offered by all three—is extremely convenient. Beyond that, each service has its pluses and minuses. We liked how Bookins shielded us from direct interaction with trading partners and the fact that they guaranteed our satisfaction with each trade, but we missed the social interaction services that such member forums provide. We also found this site’s system of awarding more points to some items and fewer to others to be somewhat arbitrary. In the end, we decided we liked Bookins the least of the three.
Swaptree has the best collection of trading tools with its hooks into Facebook, its ability to import inventory lists stored in text and spreadsheet files, and its Firefox toolbar that alerted us when we were about to purchase a book online that was available for trade for free. Swaptree also has the best product mix: We appreciated the freedom to trade books for movies, CDs, or even video games (and vice versa). But we didn’t like being limited to one-for-one trades, and we didn’t like paying postage to ship items to other customers without knowing we’d be able find something we were interested in acquiring for ourselves.
After executing swaps on all the services, we think PaperBackSwap would be the one we’d use over the long run. They have large inventories of books, CDs, and movies, and their members are very active traders (we executed three times as many trades here than we did at either Bookins or Swaptree). We also liked the fact that we didn’t have to incur any shipping costs unless we were the acquiring party.
Our biggest knock against PaperBackSwap is the fact that you must maintain separate memberships for trading books, CDs, and DVDs; being able to transfer points between the three doesn’t make this any less of a hassle. And while we would have preferred knowing a little more about the condition of items on offer, this was the only site that allowed us to establish preconditions for trades (being lifelong nonsmokers, for example, we definitely would not enjoy reading a book that smelled like a pack of cigarettes).
Hardcore collectors won’t like any of these services because you’ll need to give something up to get something else. Even the sites that sell points limit the number of points you can acquire in a month, because they depend on trades for their inventory. But if you’re looking for cheap entertainment, let’s be honest. It doesn’t get much cheaper than free.